Now in its third Covent Garden season, Richard Jones’ staging of La bohème has the feel of a pre-Prius Toyota: the most solid and dependable cars in the world, but with little to set a petrolhead’s pulse racing or excite debate about its novelties. The success of any revival, therefore, is down to its cast.

Aida Garifullina (Musetta) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Aida Garifullina (Musetta)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

With the scheduled Mimì, Sonya Yoncheva, absent from the first night due to illness, the most eye-catching performance came from Aida Garifullina as Musetta. Garifullina has a delicious and unusual combination of clarity and sweetness: it’s a voice that sounds light in timbre but is weighty in volume, making her sparklingly seductive in “Quando m’en vo’” but also serving her well in the greater pathos around Mimì's bedside in Act 4.

Yoncheva’s place was taken at short notice by Simona Mihai, who sang a sweet-toned and attractively phrased Mimì. Mihai had plenty of power to blend well with the orchestra but she was short on intelligibility; her acting was credible enough but she didn’t achieve the level of chemistry we hope for with Charles Castronovo’s Rodolfo.

Charles Castronovo (Rodolfo) and Simona Mihai (Mimì) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Charles Castronovo (Rodolfo) and Simona Mihai (Mimì)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Castronovo’s voice is one I could listen to all evening for its clarity and easy flowing warmth: the duet “O soave fanciulla” is right in the middle of his sweet spot. But in acting terms, he convinced me more as the member of a gang of four carefree young lads than as the impassioned lover. Rodolfo’s easy-going but deep friendship with Andrzej Filończyk’s Marcello will last a lifetime, I felt, but will his desperation at Mimì’s death last more than a year or so? I wasn’t convinced – although one has to make allowances for the fact that Castronovo and Mihai will have had limited rehearsal time in which to build up a rapport.

The acting of the four lads suffered from no such problems, with Castronovo and Filończyk well supported by Gyula Nagy’s Schaunard and Peter Kellner’s Colline and the general bonhomie nicely rendered. Filończyk sounded good when given the space to do so, but struggled at times to make himself heard above the orchestra: Emmanuel Villaume used relatively slow tempi to let us hear plenty of detail in the score, but in the parts with thicker orchestration, he wasn’t keeping the levels down to stay under the singers.

Act 2 chorus © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Act 2 chorus
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

While Jones’ production has one distinctively stylish feature – the moving scenery of Act 2, where the Café Momus and the Paris Arcades seem to swirl around our characters. But its mild annoyances irritate more than before on a second viewing, most notably the mismatch between the bright lighting of Act 1 and the libretto, given that the text is all about the two lovers groping around in the darkness. To this, we can add the cloak which Colline laments selling in “Vecchia zimarra”: rather than the venerable item of clothing depicted in the words, it’s a snappy scarlet number that has been bought in between Acts 1 and 2 with Schaunard’s earnings from his English lord, which undermines the spirit of the aria.

Is it unfair to accuse the Royal Opera of playing it safe with this staging? After all, La bohème is a top ten opera and a production like this, which is thoroughly competent in all respects, is going to keep a lot of the audience more than satisfied. Those of us who have seen the opera many times in many guises hope for something more to lift the evening out of the routine.

***11